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The family way
7:00am Saturday 18th August 2012 in Lifestyle
As new figures suggest that, on average, British adolescents watch 6.1 hours of TV per day experts discuss their worrying dependency on screens, computers and electronic games.
By Lisa Salmon
With the school summer holidays in full swing, it's all too easy to let bored kids watch more and more TV, or spend hours on the computer.
It's estimated that the average British child now has access to five different screens at home - but is spending so much time in front of them simply a harmless form of entertainment, or is it damaging?
Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman insists that parents need to set rules on screen time for children, and be aware that they are important role models and should therefore not spend too much time in front of a screen themselves.
Pointing out that the average screen time in the home for young British adolescents is now 6.1 hours per day, he says: "Passive parenting in the face of the new media environment is a form of benign neglect and not in the best interests of children.
"Parents must regain control of their own households."
He says that by the age of seven, the average child will have spent the equivalent of a full year watching screen media, and points out that even average levels of daily screen viewing are strongly associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.
In addition, playing computer games extensively can affect the brain's reward pathways, leading to changes that resemble the effects of substance dependence, he says.
To reduce the risk of screen overuse, Sigman suggests parents shouldn't let children be exposed to screens until at least the age of three, the frequency and length of exposure for older children should be reduced, as should the availability of screens, especially in bedrooms.
Parents should also be made aware that their own level of viewing may influence their children's exposure, he says.
"A large number of studies are finding that parental rules and limits on child screen time effectively reduce screen time as does not having screens in bedrooms," he says.
"Technology should be a tool, not a burden or a health risk."
However, media psychologist Dr Brian Young points out that children can learn very quickly and effectively from TV and the internet, and TV has a social function as it can bring families together when they watch it.
He says most of the research that has shown TV can have a toxic effect on children is looking at very young ones, and says: "It's not very good for infants or very young children to watch too much TV, so I think parents have a responsibility to monitor how much TV is used as a babysitter."
However, he doesn't feel it's particularly beneficial to be prescriptive about how much screen time children are allowed, stressing: "People will say that some children are getting too much TV as if they're getting too much of a bad medicine or even a drug.
"It's not a drug, it's not a medicine, it's an activity."
He points out that children are very good at dividing their attention between different tasks, like watching TV and doing their homework at the same time, for example.
Most of the studies on how much TV children watch rely on whether the TV is on or off, and reports from the household as to who's watching at that time, he says.
"But the reality is that while the TV's on, children may be doing other things as well," he stresses.
"I see TV as an essential tool of the household, and like any other tool such as the internet, it needs to be used responsibly, and ultimately it's the parents' responsibility."
Whether parents should lay down the law and state how much screen time children should have is up to them, he says.
"You might want to suggest to the child that there's other more interesting things to do."
Pointing out that watching TV is highly correlated with obesity, he says: "The whole point about good parenting is that you don't restrict the sort of activities that children do. It's your job to nudge them towards more fulfilling activities."
Ultimately, parents should use their judgment when it comes to screen time, he says, and while always recognising the need for boundaries, they shouldn't unnecessarily put things off limits.
"Forbidden fruit is a powerful motivator for children," he warns, adding: "Many parents just don't know which way to turn, particularly if they've got no extended family support, so they might turn to electronic media and screens.
"But they'll know instinctively if something's bad for their kids."
Ask the expert
Q: "If I opt for a caesarean or have to have one, is there much risk of infection, and how serious are such infections?"
A: Dr Catherine Wloch of the Health Protection Agency, lead author of a recent study on caesareans and infection, says: "Yes, there is a risk of infection for women having a caesarean section.
"Our study found that one in 10 women developed an infection of the surgical wound or reproductive tract following caesarean section. The risk was even greater for obese women who had more than twice the risk of infection compared to women in the normal body mass index (BMI) range.
"For a few women these infections can be serious, resulting in readmission to hospital and possibly further surgery, but the majority of infections can be treated with antibiotics by your GP.
"However, even the less serious may prolong recovery and cause anxiety at a difficult time for a new mother.
"The majority of women in our study had a caesarean section on medical grounds, not through personal choice, and in these cases the risk to the mother or her baby of complications from vaginal delivery would almost certainly outweigh the risk of any infection which subsequently developed.
"If you choose to have a caesarean section for non-medical reasons, you should be aware of the risk of infection, particularly if you're overweight.
"Pregnant women or those considering starting a family who are overweight or obese should consider following a healthy eating weight management programme under the guidance of healthcare professionals to minimise further weight gain."
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